A watermelon-themed hot air balloon made contact with a steep cliffside Sunday during the 2023 Animas Valley Balloon Rally, causing the balloon to tear and the pilot to make a quick landing.
Debbi Waltman, acting balloon meister, said the pilot suffered a small cut on his hand, “probably from a sharp tree branch.”
She said the landing on the west side of the Animas Valley was “no big deal.”
“They will be taking the balloon home and getting it repaired,” she said.
She did not immediately know the identity of the pilot, but another organizer said the balloon was piloted by Bob O’Brien.
Several websites indicate that O’Brien of Wisconsin pilots a watermelon-themed balloon. His wife and possibly a third person were in the basket at the time of the landing, Waltman said.
Witnesses said the balloon hit trees and oak brush on a steep cliff face on the west side of the valley, causing the balloon to rip, spin and impact the mountainside.
“We saw him come in contact with some trees, and then it looked like he was trying to gain altitude again,” said Cherie Morris, who took photos. “As he turned, you could see that the balloon definitely had some damage to it.”
The watermelon balloon made a quick landing after making contact with the cliffside, she said.
“We did see the basket come in contact with the cliff face,” she said. “... I think a lot of other people saw it, because there was a whole line of cars pulled over.”
Spectators could do little more than watch as the pilot negotiated the seedy situation.
“When he was going along the cliffside, you could tell the branches were snagging onto the balloon, which were causing the balloon to spin and rotate,” said Ron Wysocki, a former Durango Police Department officer, who witnessed the impact. “Then you could see the basket rotating, and then that stopped and he kind of just slowly came back lower to the ground rather than the cliffside.”
Durango Fire Protection District appeared to be responding to the downed balloon, Morris said, but the agency did not immediately return a phone call Monday seeking comment.
A second balloon appeared as if it was also going to impact the cliffside, Morris said, but that balloon gained altitude and floated over the ridge.
Waltman said the balloon that floated over the ridge landed safely in an open pasture near the Falls Creek subdivision. She speculated that O’Brein didn’t want to land over there, where retrieval can be difficult, which is why he tried to make a quick landing where he did.
More than two dozen hot air balloons participated in this year’s balloon rally. By and large, Waltman said it was a successful event.
Morning drainage winds took longer to die down than usual, she said, which delayed the start times. However, balloons were able to launch all three mornings, Friday to Sunday.
A close brush with vegetation is not that juicy of a story in the world of hot air ballooning, she said.
“We’ve all been there. We’ve all had times where we’ve landed closer to something than we wanted to,” Waltman said. “And like I say, fabric is totally repairable, so it’s not a big deal.”